First Graf: The Dharma Bums

THIS IS THE ONLY NOVEL ever recommended by a friend who told me, “Neal, we’re in a book.” (It’s also the first Kerouac work I ever read.)

It was 1981, and my friend and I were going through our Dilettante Buddhist period. I remember devouring The Dharma Bums in something like a one- or two-day marathon session, and when it was done I called my friend and said, “Yup.”

In many ways, this 1958 book is better than On the Road. Kerouac’s signature stream-of-consciousness narrative style is more flowy, and the novel’s lionized centerperson (poet Gary Snyder, or “Japhy Ryder” as tDB calls him) a more noble character than OtR’s Neal Cassady — pardon me, “Dean Moriarty.” The Buddhism as portrayed is sympathetically casual without being didactic, which I suppose is also true of Buddhism itself. The book opens up in Los Angeles, where Kerouac (ahem, “Ray Smith”) is trying to “get the hell out of Dodge…”

Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara. It was a local and I intended to sleep on the beach at Santa Barbara that night and catch either another local to San Luis Obispo the next morning or the firstclass freight all the way to San Francisco at seven p.m. Somewhere near Camarillo where Charlie Parker’d been mad and relaxed back to normal health, a thin old little bum climbed into my gondola as we headed into a siding to give a train right of way and looked surprised to see me there. He established himself at the other end of the gondola and lay down, facing me, with his head on his own miserably small pack and said nothing. By and by they blew the highball whistle after the eastbound freight had smashed through on the main line and we pulled out as the air got colder and fog began to blow from the sea over the warm valleys of the coast. Both the little bum and I, after unsuccessful attempts to huddle on the cold steel in wraparounds, got up and paced back and forth and jumped and flapped arms at each our end of the gon. Pretty soon we headed into another siding at a small railroad town and I figured I needed a poorboy of Tokay wine to complete the cold dusk run to Santa Barbara. “Will you watch my pack while I run over there and get a bottle of wine?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *